Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A century of mass transportation transformed the beach attraction from a rich-man’s playground to a more universal park.
Wide-open spaces have long kindled developers’ imaginations and attracted stifled city-dwellers looking for a change of scenery and pace. But betting on something near the far reaches of a transit system presents its own set of challenges. Visitors have to get there. If you build it, how will they come?
Coney Island is a great example. A new exhibition at Brooklyn’s New York Transit Museum traces the trajectory of the transit routes that shuttled urbanites to the shore, and, in turn, how the park grew in tandem with the system.
In the 19th century, the sandy beach appealed to strollers and revelers wrung out from the heat of the city streets. But it proved tough to get to. Developers like Austin Corbin, a railroad tycoon, eyed the beach’s solitary expanse as a slate on which to sketch the plans for more robust tourist infrastructure. Railroad companies often bought land with the express purpose of building attractions along the route, says Rob Delbagno, the curator of the exhibition. Soon, the eastern end of the island was full of posh hotels and horse tracks; the western side attracted a more working-class crowd, and played host to rowdier—sometimes illicit—entertainment.
The beach is about 15 miles away from Lower Manhattan, and was a literal island until 1823, when a bridge tethered it to the mainland. Steamboats ferried customers to and from the island on a regular schedule throughout the summer, departing from Lower Manhattan throughout the season. While rail cars—which also departed often for the shore—were faster, Delbagno says that steamboats were considered a scenic indulgence; flanked by musicians and other on-boat entertainment, the commute was part of the excursion.
The author of a 1913 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was convinced that new railroad terminals were going to spell bigger crowds for the resort town. And that prediction, obviously, bore out. Transit expansion helped people get to the attractions springing up at the beach; as those attractions became increasingly popular, there was a demand for more transit, Delbagno says. “The cycle continued for 100 years, until the subway arrived in 1920,” he adds. The mass transit options pulling visitors out to the shore were “a transition of many different technologies,” says Delbagno. Steam locomotives gave way to electric ones at street level, then to trolleys, and then to elevated tracks.
By the 1950s, the MTA enlisted the illustrator Amelia Jones to work on a series of ads nudging riders towards attractions in the outer boroughs. “Manhattan locations were a little more obvious,” Delbagno says. Jones sketched ads for Yankee Stadium, Orchard Beach, and the Bronx Zoo, promoting the subway as a way of getting there.
For Coney Island, she drew a mermaid sitting coquettishly on a subway seat, and in a pair of sunglasses (below), reflected the teeming crowds that energized the beach. In one image, up top, she makes the BMT lines seem as exciting as the stomach-pummeling Parachute Jump.
This summer, in conjunction with the exhibition, the Transit Museum is returning some vintage trains to the rails. As they chug their way to Coney Island, maybe they’ll call to mind Walt Whitman’s centuries-old rhapsodies about tearing into clams and racing down the sand towards the surf. “He talked about taking a stagecoach out there and dancing and swimming naked on the beach,” Delbagno says. If Whitman was stripping down and streaking, Delbagno assumes, the beach must have been pretty empty. “[Whitman was] talking about a very different place than what we know,” Delbagno says. But still, Delbagno continues, the island features in Whitman’s recollections as a place to go to have a good time. “Somehow, it’s had a 200-year-history of being a fun destination,” he says. As long as visitors could find a way to get there.
Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island is on view at the New York Transit Museum through December 4, 2016.